Conservative Hypocrisy on “Future Generations”

Robert SamuelsonIt’s Monday, and that means Dean Baker is out with another article correcting the math of Very Serious Pundit Robert Samuelson. It is something I look forward to at the beginning of each week, and Baker rarely disappoints because Samuelson rarely knows what he’s talking about.

Go ahead and read the article if you are interested. What I want to discuss is a broader point. Samuelson is one of those typical pundits who is always talking about how we have to cut entitlements because we are leaving future generations with a huge bill because of the elderly living off the fat of the land with their $15,600 yearly stipends. But at the same time, Samuelson is a global warming denier. As I discussed before, there are three levels of global warming denial, and he is at the third level, “Humans are causing global warming, but there is nothing we can do about it!” It’s not as intellectually retarded as, “There is no global warming!” But it is every bit as dangerous. (Samuelson’s thinking has evolved slightly since 2006, but not by much.)

Baker notes the hypocrisy in this:

One of the main themes of his columns is that the old are stealing from the young with their Social Security and Medicare. However Samuelson apparently sees nothing wrong with handing our kids a wrecked planet so that we can increase employment by 0.007 percent for two years. [He is referring to employment that would come from building the Keystone XL Pipeline. -FM]

This is a really important point, because this doesn’t just apply to Samuelson. His thinking on the matter is standard among conservatives. And it makes absolutely no sense. First, the fact is that Social Security is not bankrupting us. Samuelson, like most conservatives, just hates Social Security and wants to see it destroyed. But even if it were a big financial problem, we could solve it at any time by simply raising taxes or cutting benefits. It has never been clear to me why we are supposed to get behind cutting benefits today in order to stop from cutting benefits in the future.

What’s really going on with conservatives is that they think if we don’t cut Social Security now, we may face a major funding shortfall in the future. Given that the elderly vote in large numbers, future politicians will not be able to cut the program for current retirees. So the only option will be to raise taxes—most likely focusing on the rich. When Samuelson discusses stealing from the young, what he actually means is stealing from the next generations’s rich. And given the abysmal level income mobility, that just means the kids of today’s rich.

While financial problems can be fixed quickly, global warming cannot. Samuelson is right that we don’t have practical ways to remediate carbon pollution. Once the atmosphere warms, we have to just wait for the extra carbon in the atmosphere to be removed by natural processes. But note the loony logic here, “We can’t do anything about pollutants in the environment, so let’s keep putting more pollutants in the environment!” The correct solution is to stop polluting and deal with the damage we’ve already done as best we can.

What Samuelson argues is what conservatives always argue: we should do everything we can to protect the rich from any pain. And anything done for the common good should only be done if it doesn’t cause the rich any pain. So cutting entitlements is a good thing because it will protect the rich from possible future tax increases. And cutting fossil fuel use is bad because it would cost the rich money today. Of course, Samuelson would never admit this. I’m sure in his mind, he does all of this for the common good. But you have to look at the results of his preferred policy, and it is always the same: help the rich, screw the poor.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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